So there you are in New York one fine fall day in 1967, strolling up 6th Avenue in the warm afternoon sun when suddenly, up ahead, you see…well, what the hell is that? Guy’s gotta be six foot six, crazy beard, staring into space. Looks like he’s wearing the national costume of a country which hasn’t been discovered yet. He’s got a leather helmet with horns, billowing cloak and he’s holding on to a spear which is even taller than he is. Once you get closer it dawns on you that he is blind.
W, you ask yourself, TF?
The object of your disbelieving gaze goes by the name of Moondog and throughout the 1960s and early 70s, he was Manhattan’s foremost ambulant tourist attraction. The outfit, which he made himself, was an approximation of Viking costume — layers of leather, a woollen tunic and at one stage a bearskin. The New York Times found him sporting a “velvet cloak and hood of brilliant scarlet, lined with pale green satin, and two pieces of thronged cowhide that partly cover his feet.”
What appeared at first to be the flamboyant gesture of a harmless eccentric served a very definite purpose. Moondog made his living on the streets, by begging, busking or selling poetry. As such, the arresting outfits were a way of distinguishing himself from others who also lived off the largesse of passers-by. “Who ever remembers the blind man with a tin cup?” he reasoned.
But why dress as a Viking and not, say, an astronaut or a whirling dervish?
The answer lies in Moondog’s childhood. Born Louis Thomas Hardin in 1916, his adoptive name was a tribute to a family pet given to nocturnal howling. His search for a pre-Christian identity began early as a reaction to the harsh discipline of his preacher father and for a while he was drawn to Native American rituals. In the end, and partly inspired by his Scandinavian ancestry, Moondog settled on Norse mythology; the couplets that he sold were actually pieces of epic sagas.
But the dressing up, the poetry, the belief system — they were all secondary to the sustaining passion of Moondog’s life: music. Beginning with a clutch of albums in the late 1950s he became a cult recording star, his extraordinary music containing elements of jazz, classical and shamanistic drumming. What could have been a godawful stew of ill-matched ingredients is actually beautiful, hypnotic and stirring.
Moondog zealously preserved his outsider status, and was once expelled from an orchestra rehearsal when he insisted on turning up in full regalia. It was only after he moved to Germany in 1974 and found the domestic security which had always eluded him in New York that Moondog could consider casting off his uniform. There he was taken in by a family who hid his spear and teased him about what they called his “amateur Odin” costume. But contrary to the last, even as he lay dying in hospital, Moondog refused to be shaved and so in 1999 he entered Valhalla as the bearded warrior that he was.
The best introduction to Moondog — man and music — is Robert Scotto’s official biography which comes with a career-spanning CD.